Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chapter 2: There are People Who Like to Get Up Early

Chapter 2 below the fold. Friday afternoon to Saturday morning. Bonus CU content: I try to make sense of the Canada Zone in CO.

Chapter 2 –There Are People Who Like To Get Up Early

John woke to the sound of someone talking over tinny rock. A radio, and not very well tuned. Shouldn’t I be freaking out, he thought? It was like he’d had a nightmare, but that he hadn’t. Weird.
“The men and women of the Canadian forces and our superhero community have already contained the Gadroon incursion in Canadian sovereign territory, and I can assure Canada and the world that there will be decisive against this incursion in good time.”
John rolled over towards the source of the voice, and saw a bright red digital display reading “5:00AM” coming from a clock radio on a little shelf built into the bedstand. Invisible unless you were lying on the bed, it had waited until now to launch its little ambush. Another voice continued. “Of course the Prime Minister is going to say that. Look, on the one hand, the Gadroon have a couple hundred square miles of north Ontario muskeg that no-one but a few trappers are going to miss. On the other, they have space battleships. The Gadroon on the ground are too heavily armed to push out of their positions without heavy casualties, and the space battleships might come back any time.  So we have a siege going on. There doesn’t have to be an election for four years, so from the Prime Minister’s perspective, a good time is the same as a long time. Quite frankly, if the Gadroon would just give up their dream of ruling the Earth, move to a Toronto suburb, and open a dry cleaner’s, the Prime Minister would welcome them with open arms. There’s worse out there. Much worse.”
“That was Dr Wesley Wark, of the Munk Centre for International Studies of the University of Toronto.” It’s another voice, a radio professional, this time. “And that’s the news for this hour. Be sure to download the NPR news app at our website. Coming up this hour....” And John finally found the “Snooze” button. What kind of person liked to wake up at 5 to National Public Radio? Jenny Wong did, apparently, and, apparently, it was catching, like some awful flu. Now he couldn’t get back to sleep.
Well, it was still dark outside, and the window was right there. Could he really, seriously, fly? John got out of the warm, warm bed, and opened the tall gable window, stepping into a much, much warmer world. Air conditioning was good! Still, he was on his way, and he carefully put his foot over the low railing. A little muscle in his brain switched on. He could feel the ground far below, firmly supporting his foot. He took another step, and was standing in air. It seemed silly to go on “walking,” so he pushed against the world, and he was flying. Well, drifting, anyway, rather more slowly than he could walk, but to give himself a destination, he aimed at a telephone pole in the alley, just to have somewhere to go, peering down through the shadows to see if he could see the dog again.
It was too bad that there was no breeze to clear this muggy heat. It might blow some of the confusion out of his head. So much had happened in the last few days. Of course, they were the first few days that he could really remember, but, still,  John thought, last night had to have been unusually eventful. It turned out that the Wongs did cook American, a backyard barbecue to celebrate Friday night, with burgers and steaks and sticky buns from a steamer that sat on the grill.
After dinner, the twins had peppered Rafaella with questions about her home dimension and Rafaella told stories about flying sharks and gave demonstrations of her sword exercises. Then Mrs. Wong brought out her own swords and did a sword dance with May, full of spectacular flourishes and kicks. Then Mr. and Mrs. Wong paired off for something more normal. Amy wanted to dance, but Jason refused to do anything so girly, until his Dad bribed him, and, to be fair, John, too. For twenty dollars, John reluctantly agreed to be girly, and Jason was paired off with May, John with Amy. Although since Amy loudly announced that “boys are supposed to lead,” and John had no idea what he was doing, they’d just floundered around until they both started giggling. At which point May had run off to her room, followed by her Mom, and Mr. Wong had put a paper grocery bag over his head with the front pinched out like a beak and started doing a slow single dance involving bending down and flapping his arms very slowly, and then everyone had gone to bed.
And that was it! That was why his nightmare had been no nightmare. He’d seen something that should have been horrible, but in the background, there was someone dancing like Mr. Wong. What had that nightmare-like dream been? He’d been sitting in the back of a big old  car driving through some neighbourhood, not too far away, he’d thought. The driver was a tiny little man in even more old-fashioned clothes, with a big gangster-style hat and a brown suit that smelt of tobacco, and he’d been talking, cheerfully, about the changes since he’d last been to town to two huge men sitting beside him and in the passenger’s seat, both dressed gangsta style.
Then the little man had said, in a much more hollow voice, “Ah. Our visitor has arrived.” And  he had turned around towards John while the car went on driving itself, looking down towards the seat as he did so that John couldn’t see his eyes, only enough of the face to see that the man was related to Mr. Wong. And that he was brown and wrinkled and ancient. In fact, John realised, a dead man, some kind of mummy or zombie or something.
Then the man’s had begun to raise his head.  John had a moment to realise that something terrible was about to happen before the sweeping arms of the dancer crossed his vision and the car and the street and the mummy-thing disappeared.
All of that, he remembered in the time it took him to reach the telephone pole. As he reached out to touch the hot, tarred wood of the telephone pole, thirty feet above the ground. The muscle in his brain was feeling strained, as though he’d been holding too heavy a weight in too awkward a position, and it seemed like he barely made it back to his window in time. His brain-flying-muscle needed exercise!
Back inside his room, John looked around. He’d already finished his books from the airport, and aside from a TV that might wake everyone up, there just wasn’t that much  to do. He opened up his bag, took out his other T-shirt, some underwear and socks, put them on, and went out into the corridor.
The wolf dog was lying in front of the bathroom door, just across the hall and down from him, watching his door as though waiting for him. The sound of a shower, over a bathroom fan, cut off from behind the closed door of the bathroom. John walked towards the dog, cautiously. It was even bigger than he remembered, but it only levered itself up on its front legs and politely sniffed his hand when John offered it. Well, nothing for it but to see if this spooky puppy was normal enough to like being scratched on the head, or, John’s special secret, on the back at the base of the tail.
It did, happily pushing its massive head against John’s  stomach. “Are you guarding the door, boy, or just waiting for breakfast?” John asked, just as the door to the bathroom opened up. May was standing there in a bathrobe, a towel wrapped around her head just like a girl in a TV show. She looked down at John. He looked back, but her face was unreadable. She said, “At least the dog likes you.”
“Is he yours?” John asked.
“Who knows? We’ve only had him five days.”
“What?” That was not what he was expecting.
“We have a new tenant at our property in Washington, and he gave him to us as a present.” John could tell, somehow, that that wasn’t even half the story.
Now he wanted to know more. What could he ask? Duh, start with the obvious. “What’s his name?”
May said, “I’m calling him ‘The Captain.’”
“That’s a weird name for a dog.”
She gave him a look that let him know he was out on thin ice. “My Mom’s horse is called ‘The Lion Stallion.’ Is that a weird name?” She asked as though she were challenging him to disagree with Mrs. Wong. “Anyway, I named him after a friend who was the captain of his cricket team.” And then her whole face flashed anger and she practically spat out, “So don’t you start calling it a ‘weird’ name.” She whirled, and almost ran to the stairs and down. Not quite knowing what he’d said or done, John hurried after her as far as the head of the stairs. Below, May paused before the door for a long moment, until her shoulders went down in relaxation. She turned, showing no surprise to find him looking down at her, and said, in a quiet voice that still carried, with a smile to show that the storm had passed, “Careful with this door. It slams and you might wake Amy up.”
Why Amy? John asked himself, as he followed May down. The door was heavy, and he could tell that it would have slammed if he hadn't closed it carefully behind him. May had already gone into her room. Below him, now, John could barely hear the outside door opening. The Captain, behind him all this time, brushed hard against his leg as he took off downstairs like a shot. There was something else, though. Something going on that John couldn’t quite put a finger on. In the same way that he’d felt what the mummy was about to do in his dream, he now felt that he should look up at the ceiling.
Nothing. It was a ceiling, hardly visible in the morning darkness. He was feeling like an idiot until he realised that he couldn’t see the smoke alarm light, and he focussed harder, and he suddenly realised that Amy had been there all along, somehow standing upside down on the ceiling, holding the detached smoke alarm in her hands. She was being perfectly still, but her eyes were only 10 feet from his, and he looked straight at them. Whatever you’re pulling, he tried to project, I’ve seen through it.
Amy hopped down to the floor, somersaulting as she fell. “Me and Jason were just going to test some smoke grenades we borrowed from Nita,” she mumbled. John just looked at her. “Jason and I,” she corrected herself. And for some reason, that was so funny that John couldn’t help laughing. Fun as it sounded, he decided to leave the twins to their experiment. A very, very good smell was coming up the stairs.
It was a little strange, John thought, as he walked down, that in this house the stairs opened up into the cooridor between the mud room and the kitchen. Didn’t the other houses he knew have stairs inside the entrance, facing the front door? How could he know that, when he didn’t actually remember any houses?  
Mrs. Wong was sitting at the kitchen table at a scratched-up looking laptop, a big coffee mug beside her. In the still, dark garden window behind her, he saw enough of the screen reflected to know that she was using Windows 95. Grownups! She looked up at him. “That makes everyone up except the twins. Lose one early riser, gain a whole houseful of them.”
John didn’t correct her about the twins. He had a feeling that the twins would do that for him.
“There’s congee on the range if you want it, and breakfast cereal in the cupboard above the green fridge.  I’ve still got some oatmeal, too. I hope you like it, because no-one eats it now that Jenny’s gone. And if you wait, there’ll be American breakfast when my husband gets back from his death march.”
John must have looked mystified. “Run. He’s running. With that dog. And because it’s the weekend, he’s having eggs, pancakes, and bacon.”
John thought about it. “Is that the congee that smells so good?”
Mrs. Wong smiled. “I should hope so. Would you like some?”
“Yes! And then pancakes and eggs and bacon. And do you have Corn Pops?”
Now she shook her head. “Corn Flakes and Vector and Special K. and Raisin Bran...”
John shook his head, making a face before he could stop himself, but Mrs. Wong didn’t seem to mind. John sat down as Mrs. Wong got up. At the stove, she ladled out a bowl of rice porridge, poured something steamy and milky into a mug, then put them down in front of him. The congee was silky and almost like thick soup. The fluid was hot tea combined with milk or something, and sweet and rich with baking-type spices that made it even better.  “What is this?” he asked.
“Chai,” Mrs. Wong answered, as the congee vanished from the bowl, then turned back to her laptop. When it was gone, she closed the computer, cupped her chin in her left hand, and asked, “Are you ready to tell me about your dream, John?”
“How do you know that I had a dream?”
“My husband does not dance the Dance of the First Men just because, John. It is a gift for guarding humans in spirit journeys. Last night, it came down for you. If you can, tell me what you dreamed.”
John did so, haltingly, and then with every detail he could remember as he saw how interested and concerned Mrs. Wong was. At last, she laid her hand over his arm and said, “Enough. You’re trying too hard, and you’ll be making stuff up soon.”
“Do you understand it, ma’am?”
“It’s pretty straightforward, John. An evil thing that we’ve fought before is in Philadelphia. That part isn’t terribly surprising. We’ve known for a long time that Uncle Kwan was alive, well, undead, and looking for us, and that he couldn’t find us before  now. If that makes any sense. What is surprising, at least according to my information, is that you’re having spirit journeys. I was expecting Rafaella to be the one spilling her dreams this morning, but she’s just out doing sword exercises.”
Now that was surprising, even frightening. “How do you know so much about me?”
“Honey,” Mrs. Wong began, “You erased your own memories in order to save the lives of some good people, including my son.  Why you had to do that, though, we do not know. We don’t even know if your memories will come back. And I won’t lie to you; if those memories come back, they will contain horrible, evil things. So that we're taking gradually. Hopefully, we'll know that you're ready when you're ready. 
"Another thing. When I say that I won’t lie to you, I’m not asking you to take me on faith. You don’t know what happened to you, and you shouldn’t just be up and trusting everyone you meet. You know that at least one very dangerous creature has his eye on you. There's probably something even more dangerous behind Kwan. You shouldn’t take it for granted that you can trust us, any more than you would trust Kwan. Make us earn your trust.”
“I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying that there was a different me in, in my head before I wiped my memories? Maybe someone evil?”
“Not evil at the end, John. And he wasn’t someone different, either. That’s the illusion of ego. The “you” in you is an active soul following a path. Your past acts have brought you to a crossroads, but the only “you” that matters is the one that, right now, chooses which road to follow. And here endeth the lesson.” She said it with her eyes to a corner of the kitchen. John followed her gaze, and saw a little Buddha statue in a niche. Okay, then.
Now she twined her hands and rested her chin on them. “Let’s try this another way. When you learned that Mr. Wong would be putting up until you were ready to go back to your family, did you imagine this house?”
John shook his head, and Mrs. Wong smiled. “No. Of course not. You were expecting something a little more Chinese. Something strange, but instead you find a home. And a home that is completely Chinese, because there are as many ways of being ‘Chinese’ as there are Chinese. Everyone is a product of the love of their parents and their teachers, and of their own choices along the way. In this house, Mother happens to be the daughter of an Imperial princess and a nomad warlord. Father is a green shoot of the Pearl delta mud, if they only grew that big, and he’s also a sixteenth each Mohawk and Kootenay Indian. The lesson is that our path through the past has brought us where we are today, and every choice we make reflects on our past. Do the right thing, and you honour the past you choose to cherish. Never fall into the trap of thinking that your past requires you to do evil, or that it somehow protects you from making the wrong choice.”
That was quite the speech. John wasn’t sure that he understood it, and was frankly a little worried that his hostess was about to ask  him to accept Buddha as his personal saviour, or whatever it was that Buddhists said instead. Fortunately, that didn't happen, on account of the thick, choking smoke that suddenly came rolling down the stairs.

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